After years of waiting, the Letcher County Airport Board expects to know by the end of this year whether its work will ever bear fruit.
An environment impact assessment is underway now, paid for by the Kentucky Department of Aviation, and airport board chairman Joe DePriest said he hopes that when that is finished, the board will know if the airport is a go.
DePriest said the state is spending about $200,000 for the environmental study, and is expected to spend about another $600,000 to buy the property if the study shows there is no problem with the site.
“It’s either going to be a yea or a nay by the end of the year, in my opinion,” DePriest said.
The subject of a new airport has been kicked around since the 1980s, when the Whitesburg Municipal Airport at Colson closed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) pulled its automated beacon from that airport in 1987 and moved it to the Wendell Ford Regional Airport in Hazard after vandals destroyed the hangers and terminal at the already closed Whitesburg facility.
The site for the proposed airport is on a former Red Fox Coal Co. mine near Daniels Branch at Isom. The city of Whitesburg had 75 acres there that was donated by the Laviers family, but it turned that land over to the county after the new airport board was formed in 2004, on the condition that the board use it to build an airport.
It has taken 15 years to get to the point it is now, which includes options to buy between 500 and 600 acres surrounding the original 75, the grant to pay for the Environmental Impact Assessment, and the promise of another to buy the rest of the land.
“We’re at the highest point we’ve been at over the last 10 years,” DePriest said.
DePriest said there have been times that it seemed like nothing would ever get done, including a meeting in Owensboro at which the board was told the regulations had changed and it had to start over from the beginning if it still wanted to build an airport.
“ Up to the last few months, I think most of the people on this board would have, at best, rated the chances of getting this at 50-50,” he said. “But in the past three or four months, things have changed.”
DePriest said the airport is now ranked the number two priority for new airports in the state, behind the Gallatin County airport, which received a $9 million federal construction grant last week.
“Letcher County has been in worse shape than being number two on somebody’s list,” he said.
Paul Steely, a former commissioner of the state Department of Aviation who now works for PDC Consultants LLC of Franklin, Tenn., said he feels good about the county’s chances. PDC has worked with the county for years, and Steely had discussions with the airport board while he was still commissioner. PDC is doing the environmental impact assessment, and Steely said since the land has already been strip mined, he does not expect any problems. While Steely said he expects some pushback from people saying money being spent on an airport should go to other infrastructure, he said the funding doesn’t work like that.
“The FAA doesn’t put in water lines, the FAA doesn’t put in sewer lines, they only build airports, and if that money doesn’t get spent in Letcher County, it’s going to go somewhere else,” he said.
The airport would be small, 4,000 to 4,500 feet long to begin with and expanding to 5,500 feet within a few year. That has some doubtful that it would be beneficial to economic development. Chuck Sexton, chief executive officer of One East Kentucky, said there are airports that size all around Letcher County, and it wouldn’t attract business.
“In my mind, there’s no sense in putting in another 5,500-foot airport,” Sexton said.
Sexton instead suggested an 8,000- to 10,000-foot runway, something De- Priest and Steely both said is not possible. Steely noted that even the Lexington Bluegrass Airport has only a 7,000-foot runway, and provides commercial service from a number of carriers.
The proposed airport here would be for general aviation — small corporate jets and private aircraft, a use that Steely said can be documented and supported, and a use the FAA will fund.
“ Five thousand will handle 90 percent of all the aircraft in use in the country,” Steely said.
DePriest said even if the county can’t get a 5,000- foot runway at the outset, it can increase the length as it gets FAA approval and money. Steely said those increases are usually approved in 500-foot increments.
“If the FAA says you can have a 4,500-foot runway or nothing, I’ll take the 4,500 feet,” DePriest said.
According to the FAA database, there are just four airports in Kentucky with runways of 8,000 feet or longer: Owensboro, Fort Campbell, Louisville, and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky.